It’s a well-known truism in the park management world: Road signs are rarely read by hikers.
Excited to enjoy wildlife – now – they’re missing out on important messages posted to protect parks, wildlife and the hikers themselves.
“Since the 1960s, we’ve been doing studies on how to send messages to visitors and change people’s behaviors,” said Will Rice, assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management at the University of Montana. “That’s more than five decades we’ve been thinking about words, but we’ve done very little so far to test the graphic design of labels.”
Rice figured there had to be a better way to get attention, and last year reached out to University of Kansas associate professor of design Jeremy Schellhorn, who founded Design Outside Studio, a summer class for design students to tackle projects that benefit the public.
Schellhorn also created a typeface called the National Park Typeface, which became, Rice says, “insanely popular”.
After a brainstorming session or two, Rice and Schellhorn assembled a team of undergraduate researchers to determine what it takes—visually and verbally—to reach even the most emotional of hikers. Through coursework, KU students designed graphics based on letters developed by UM students, who also conducted field research to determine if their efforts matched the hiking boot crowd.
For funding and help with the project, Rice turned to Missoula Parks & Recreation representatives, who asked the students to meet two very real management needs: keeping dogs on a leash 200 meters from trails, and stopping the spread of invasive plant species by using boot litter on trails.
“Parks and Recreation told the students that they want positive messages from the stewardship of this place,” Rice said. “We wanted to see if different graphic processors would not only capture people’s attention, but also influence their behavior and make them buy into what we’re trying to do.”
Students collaborated for weeks on the design, meeting online and exchanging opinions on fonts and colors through a messaging platform.
“The way we interacted over Zoom was interesting,” said Jazelle Elias, who graduated this spring with a degree in Parks, Tourism, and Recreation Management at UM. “Kuwait students spoke in media arts, and we spoke in social sciences. They were great.”
It was a unique experience working with the Kansas students, said Grace Walhaus, another PTRM senior, who was conducting field research once the labels were completed in the summer of 2022. Their experiment lab was the Sunlight Trailhead in Missoula.
“It was the first time I did research in this area,” said Wallos, who also graduated in May and works in Missoula caring for campgrounds and trails for the U.S. Forest Service. “It was interesting to see how wide it was.”
The big challenge, Wallos and Elias said, was trying to stay as unobtrusive as possible as the hikers interacted — or not — with the signs, while recording which signs drew the most attention and how much time the hikers spent reading the messages. Take part in this sitting on camp chairs, pretending to have a picnic.
“Will told us we were going to collect data using the ‘latent method,’ which everyone was very excited about,” said Elias, who this summer will be “cleaning trails and running chainsaws” for the U.S. Forest Service in the Lincoln Ranger District.
She added, “The most memorable reaction I saw was a hiker not only wiping his shoe on the shoebrush, but also wiping his dog’s paws.”
The designs that garnered the most attention, according to the data the students collected, were those that involved something called “print-as-image,” a visual manipulation that associates images with messages. In one case, plants blooming in the northern hills of Missoula intertwined the lines. In another, it was a dog leash with a collar.
“All the signals were more enticing than a blank sheet of paper pinned to a tree,” Rice said. “They were really beautiful.”
Wallos said it was also effective.
“Our research shows that messages and graphics really do affect people,” she said.
Rice said Missoula Parks and Recreation will use the results of the study as it develops new signage. In the meantime, he’ll conduct a similar study this summer in the Grand Canyon, testing signage to stop people from peering away over the canyon’s crumbling rim.
“The wording really depends on the audience,” Rice said. “The Grand Canyon has a more diverse audience than hikers in Montana. So this will be an interesting challenge.”
The results of the first study will be published in the June issue of Journal of outdoor recreation and tourism. It was also posted online from earlier this year.
All students in the study were listed as authors — a rarity in academia, Rice said.
“In the past it was not uncommon for undergraduates to be listed as authors even though they often put in a lot of work,” he said. “But in recent years there has been a really big push to recognize their efforts, and it’s great that their names are out there.”
Elias said co-authorship is definitely a lasting legacy for the students in the class.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve posted now,'” she said. “My partner and his family were so excited they even made me a cake to celebrate.”
William L. Rice et al., The effect of graphic design on attention-grabbing and behavior among outdoor recreational enthusiasts: Results from an exploratory disguised signage experiment, Journal of outdoor recreation and tourism (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.jort.2023.100606
the quote: Trailhead Shroud: Student Researchers Create Signs with Impact (2023, May 15) Retrieved May 15, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-05-trailhead-art-student-impact.html
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